Babylon 5 (The Complete Fourth Season) Review
Season 4 of Babylon 5 holds a very special place in the overall story arc, plunging the station and its inhabitants into an intriguing series of events that tie up many of the loose ends introduced in the preceding three seasons of the show. In the words of the opening, 'It was... the year of destruction... the year we took back what was ours. It was the year of rebirth... It was a new age... It was the year everything changed.'
Season 4 takes place in 2261 and picks up from those brutal cliffhangers we were left with at the end of season 3: Sheridan has gone to Z'ha'dum and disappeared, Garibaldi has simply vanished, and Babylon 5 has left the auspices of Earthgov and is struggling for support in the Shadow War. Many of the characters are in a state of flux – Delenn pines for Sheridan, knowing that he is aware of her previous deceptions; Londo appears to have given up all hope of salvation while his old enemy and sparring partner G'Kar seems to have got philosophy; Ivanova, bereft of Sheridan and Garibaldi, seems a very lonely figure in charge of Babylon 5... especially with the ambassadors all a little pre-occupied with their own affairs.
A lot happens in this series, and chasing up the cliffhangers is only the start of a tumultuous adventure for almost every character in the fine ensemble cast. Season 4 bears the title of 'No Surrender, No Retreat' – it's a fitting subtext for the action of the series. But there's another reason why there's so much action and resolution here, and it's a slightly sadder one based (as often is the case) on funding and doubts for a show's future. Babylon 5 was always imagined as a five-year story arc by its creator, J Michael Straczynski – all the storylines were based on this assumption. However, by the time the episodes for season 4 were being worked on, the network had still not decided on signing the show up for that fifth and final year. Straczynski, knowing how important it would be to resolve the major storylines and threads, decided to ensure resolutions occurred in season 4. The show was then extended for a fifth season and further storylines investigated then – but for the above reason season 4 is really essential viewing if you've been watching the show up to this point.
So just what action does season 4 cover, you ask? Well, there are two major wars to start with... firstly the Shadow War itself and secondly the War to free Earth from President Clark and the concomitant evils of his adminstration. These form the main core of the action, but there is plenty of other stuff going on. For instance, we do find out what happened to Sheridan and also to Garibaldi, whose storyline takes him far away from Babylon 5, allowing more exposition of the political wranglings back on Earth and also giving a good insight into business relationships with Psi Corps. The action is not all based around Babylon 5, which is an interesting departure from the previous 3 seasons. We have Delenn going back to Minbari to help deal with civil unrest on her homeworld; Londo is on Centauri Prime and is joined there by Vir and G'Kar, and we also get to see the Narn homeworld and a great deal of Mars as we meet with the Resistance! There's plenty of movement of the White Star fleet also.
The two wars really frame this series though. After 3 seasons of building up the power of the Shadows and the Vorlons, and after finally revealing the philosophical struggle between these two ancient races, the conflict is resolved in a disappointingly anti-climactic manner, but at least it frees the remainder of the storyline to deal with Earth's political struggles. For me anyway, the war with Earth became more interesting than the Shadows by this point. But the most engaging aspect of season 4 are the personal journeys made by Londo and G'Kar. OK, so I always loved these two sparring partners – their acting and characters always seemed on a different level from those around them, but here they really come into their own. Londo has to not only face the consequences of his previous flippant actions regarding the Shadows, but he also has to deal with other troubles in order to save his homeworld. G'Kar has a path of pain to follow, but does so with incredible dignity and honour. What can I say – I love these guys!
It's good to hear more about Psi Corps too, which always means the inevitable and welcome return of Bester – a fantastic character of whom we learn even more in this series. Garibaldi's story... well, it's not bad, but I never really was as interested in that sub-arc, despite quite liking the character. And Sheridan becomes even more self-righteous than he was in previous seasons – which is OK if you like that sort of thing, but I have since developed a flinch mechanism that now accompanies any airtime by either Sheridan or Delenn. Of all the main characters, I think it's Ivanova that suffers most from the season 4 storyline, not because she doesn't get to do anything, but because everything she does is a little matter-of-course: she obeys orders, she captains ships, she's competent (and she brushes off Marcus' infatuation, of course). And yet, even Ivanova, by the end of the season, is a changed person.
It's hard to imagine anyone coming straight in at Babylon 5 season 4, almost as difficult as envisioning them stopping at the end of season 3 and not continuing with the show. This makes this season's action critical in any appreciation of the overriding Babylon 5 story arc. It has its high points and low points and the pacing isn't quite as spot on as I found it in previous seasons – but the reason for this is the immense amount of story we're having to process, with action jumping all around the universe in an attempt to tie up the real loose ends in case season 5 wasn't on the cards. So it succeeds in this primary objective: to let us know what becomes of all the major characters through their major arcs – but at the cost of some of the characterisation.
The cast need to work together to make this ensemble piece work. Whatever your views of their various acting styles, they continue here as they did in previous seasons. My personal favourites are obviously G'Kar (Andreas Katsulas) and Londo (Peter Jurasik), though I'm also a fan of Ivanova (Claudia Christian), Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle), Franklin (Richard Biggs) and Vir (Stephen Furst)! Another of my favourites for this season is Emperor Cartagia (Wortham Krimmer) who plays delightfully insane with almost worrying success. I'm sure Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) and Delenn (Mira Furlan) do an OK job, but I find their characters so obnoxiously righteous that it distracts me just too much from any comment on their acting. I have to say that Marcus Cole (Jason Carter) and Lyta Alexander (Patricia Tallman) have never impressed me acting-wise, and that's so much more obvious in this season where they appear a lot. Oh well, overall I enjoy the show far too much for its writing and action to worry about such issues. Finally, bit parts continue to be nicely fleshed out with decent actors.
This is definitely a strong series of Babylon 5. There's a hell of a lot going on all the time and although the end of the Shadow/Vorlon conflict is a bit of a let-down, the progression into the politics on Centauri, Narn, Minbar and Earth prove quite fascinating. Machinations upon machinations affect all the main cast and the writing, effects and music all stand up to the scrutiny of a fourth season, in my opinion. It's a shame there was no foreknowledge that the show would indeed run for the five seasons Straczynski originally planned, as this would have greatly affected not only the pacing here, but also during the fifth season. Having said that, the fourth season as it stands is essential viewing for any Babylon 5 fan, and I found watching it again after so many years only added to my enjoyment of the show.
The Hour of the Wolf
No one knows what's happened to Sheridan since he went to Z'ha'dum, though news of the nuclear explosion there has made it back to Babylon 5, where everyone is a bit shell-shocked. Garibaldi is also still missing. Delenn and Ivanova attempt to hold things together while Londo takes up his new position on Centauri Prime.
Whatever Happened to Mr Garibaldi?
G'Kar takes it upon himself to leave Babylon 5 in order to locate Garibaldi, risking his own freedom as he does so. Indeed, in the end he is caught by Centauri forces and taken back to their homeworld to face execution. Meanwhile, Sheridan meets Lorien in the depths of Za'ha'dum...
Ivanova and Marcus Cole take out a White Star in hopes of finding some more First Ones to assist in the Shadow War. Zack receives a tip-off about Garibaldi's location and goes to pick him up... but the security chief remembers nothing of the previous fortnight. Cartagia becomes obsessed with torturing G'Kar while Sheridan and Lorien arrive at Babylon 5.
Falling Towards Apotheosis
Cartagia explains his grand and insane plan for personal godhood to Londo. In desperation Londo encourages the insane emperor to move G'Kar to Narn for a public execution. Meanwhile, the crew onboard Babylon 5 have to deal with Kosh if they're going to be able to do anything about the Vorlons destroying planets in their epic-scale war with the Shadows.
The Long Night
Oh no, the Shadows are destroying planets too. Before the universe runs out of targets, Sheridan decides to step in and prepares for a final showdown with both the Vorlons and the Shadows. Meanwhile, with G'Kar transported to Narn for his execution, Londo must act now to save his adversary and his homeworld!
Into the Fire
Londo races back to Centauri Prime, trying to get there before the Vorlon planetkiller does. And it's finally time to deal with Mr Morden (who, he finds out, was responsible for the death of Adira)... and Vir finally gets his wish (a classic moment in the series). After contacting the remaining First Ones, Ivanova and Lorien move to join the rest of the fleet where Sheridan has organised the meeting between the two ancient races. The war is ended and the third age begins.
Garibaldi resigns as security chief after receiving a strange message. G'Kar and Londo arrive back on Babylon 5 just as President Clark begins to use everything in his power to shut the station down. Bester returns to Babylon 5, this time with information about President Clark's plans to discredit the station – but in return he wants help reviving his lover, help that entails a return to Z'ha'dum.
The Illusion of Truth
Sheridan is worried about his father after attempts to contact him prove fruitless. ISN reporters show up hoping to do a big story on Babylon 5. Though Sheridan refuses at first, he eventually gives way, hoping some of their side will be shown. When the final story is broadcast, of course, the media has placed all the negative spin they can on Babylon 5! Garibaldi starts a new career finding lost items for people.
Delenn returns to Minbar to attend 'The Dreaming', while answering questions from her clan about her relationship with Sheridan. Marcus and Franklin are sent to Mars to make contact with the Resistance there.
Marcus and Franklin get to Mars and meet their contact there, though the welcome is not quite what they expected. Ivanova deals with smugglers to keep Babylon 5 in supplies. Garibaldi and Sheridan publicly disagree and an anti-Sheridan/pro-Clark group lobbies Garibaldi to join them. Delenn and Sheridan undergo a Minbari pre-marriage rite.
Lines of Communication
Franklin manages to get the Resistance leaders to listen to their message and to bring them onside; he even gets close to the leader of the Resistance. Delenn investigates some recent attacks and finds out about the Drakh and with trouble brewing between warrior and religious castes on Minbar she decides to return to her homeworld to help sort out the difficulties.
Conflicts of Interest
Garibaldi is employed as bodyguard to his ex-fiancee, Lise Hampton. Ivanova is recruited as the 'Voice of the Resistance' and Sheridan tries to persuade Londo and G'Kar to allow White Star fleets to patrol their perimeters.
Rumours, Bargains and Lies
Delenn enlists help to stop the civil war that has broken out on Minbar while Sheridan tactically plots a way for the League of Non-Aligned Worlds to accept White Star patrols.
Moments of Transition
Garibaldi is asked to sneak a package through customs and on to Io. The civil war on Minbar continues until the warrior caste has vastly outpowered the religious caste and demands their surrender. Delenn steps in and manages to sort things out, leading to a new council ruling Minbar and led by the worker caste. And Bester is still his old sneaky self, as Lyta discovers...
No Surrender, No Retreat
Sheridan prepares for all-out war after Clark kills unarmed refugees. The League of Non-Aligned Worlds agree to patrol and protect Babylon 5. Londo asks G'Kar to participate in a joint Narn-Centauri statement in support of the war against Clark. Garibaldi leaves Babylon 5, saying he won't be returning.
The Exercise of Vital Powers
Garibaldi is taken to the home of William Edgars, where he is scanned for trustworthiness. Edgars then explains some of his master plan to Garibaldi, who agrees to help him. Franklin and Lyta learn more about the frozen telepaths and are sent to Mars with them on the orders of Sheridan.
The Face of the Enemy
Garibaldi lures Sheridan to Mars saying he has news of his father. He then betrays his ex-comrade, and Sheridan is captured by Clark's forces. Edgars reveals to Garibaldi the rest of his plans for the Psi Corps and telepaths in general, and Garibaldi shares this information with Bester. It's then that Bester tells Garibaldi how he was captured by the Psi Corps and programmed to uncover threats towards telepaths. He releases Garibaldi from their mental influence and restores his lost memories. Garibaldi returns to Edgars' complex on Mars to find Edgars near death and Lise missing (along with the virus and antidote). Ivanova learns of Garibaldi's betrayal and orders him shot on sight.
Intersections in Real Time
Sheridan and his interrogator sit in a stark room. The interrogation attempts to force Sheridan to admit undue alien influence in his decision to break from and undermine Earth.
Between the Darkness and the Light
A rescue party for Sheridan is organised, but only after Garibaldi is captured by Mars Resistance and pleads with Lyta and Franklin to listen to how he has been manipulated by Bester. Luckily Lyta can scan him for authentication purposes! Ivanova gets word that a trap has been set for the fleet and heads out to engage the ambushing forces of super destroyers.
Sheridan's plans for Shadow-modified telepaths and the fleet between him and Earth take shape. The final strike to free Earth and Mars from Clark begins. Meanwhile, Marcus desperately tries to find a way to help Ivanova by searching through the Babylon 5 medical database.
The civil war is over and President Clark is dead; but Sheridan must now deal with his actions and their consequences. Londo is to be the next Centauri Emperor; Garibaldi rescues Lise with the help of the Rangers; Ivanova is still in grief-ridden shock; Sheridan is proclaimed President of a new alliance after the League of Non-Aligned Worlds is dissolved. Sheridan and Delenn are also married and Ivanova is promoted to Captain, at which point she leaves Babylon 5 to take command of a new warship.
The Deconstruction of Falling Stars
A million years in the future, the history of Babylon 5 and its leaders is examined by someone archiving clips about the fate of Earth and the Interstellar Alliance.
Ok, down to the nitty-gritty. These DVDs, as with previous seasons, present a 1.78:1 anamorphic video transfer. Yes, the CGI was originally made for 1.33:1 aspect ratio so all the scenes with CGI here had to be tinkered with. The subsequent slight blurriness and pixilation are noticeable here, but not as extreme as earlier seasons.
The live action sequences are good and solid picture-wise, not suffering from any of the re-cropping the CGI sequences had to undergo. Black levels, skin tones and the bright colours necessary for any sci-fi show come across well. There are some instances of graininess and some other small blemishes but again the quality here is much stronger than was seen in the first two seasons and it's the best transfer yet of the show.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, which offers a good range of surround elements. The show is mostly front-heavy, though the rear speakers do get to kick in for much of the soundtrack music as well as the occasional sound effects. The music is as good as previous seasons with a great score by Christopher Franke, and the dialogue is crisp and clear throughout.
First a quick mention of the menus – they're pretty plain (and from what I understand similar to those on the previous season DVDs). There is some worrying morphing going on, so that the four characters that start on the main menu page morph one-by-one into a different set of characters. I was particularly freaked out by Ivanova's transformation into Marcus Cole! But that being said, onto the extras...
For a 22-episode show, there aren't that many special features, and the only ones I can actually review are the commentaries on two of the episodes, as the final disc of the season 4 DVD set (and the one containing the majority of the extras!) was omitted from the review copy I was sent.
That being said, the full set of extras includes:
- Actor commentary on 'Falling Towards Apotheosis'
- Straczynski and director Michael Vejar commentary on 'The Face of the Enemy'
- Straczynski commentary on 'The Deconstruction of Falling Stars'
- Introduction to the season by J Michael Straczynski
- Celestial Sounds – a look at the soundtrack and interview with the composer
- No Surrender, No Retreat DVD Suite – a montage of scenes from the season accompanied by music
- Blooper reel
- Data files (info on characters, etc)
The actor commentary on 'Falling Towards Apotheosis' is pretty enjoyable to listen to. Taking part are Bruce Boxleitner (Sheridan), Jerry Doyle (Garibaldi), Peter Jurasik (Londo), and Patricia Tallman (Lyta) – and they spend a lot of time mocking one another's acting techniques and making peripheral (but amusing!) comments. Doyle is by far the most entertaining of the group. It's definitely worth listening to as it provides an insight into certain aspects of the ensemble nature of the show – and hell, it's just plain fun.
The creator and director commentary on 'The Face of the Enemy' is much more serious and it's nice to actually be given both types of commentary as part of the special features. There's a lot of technical stuff about how certain sequences were filmed (especially Sheridan's drugged-up fight scene with the still photos cut into it) and there's also some insights from Straczynski into the storyline and overall arc of the show at this point.
The final extra not included on the last disc is the season introduction by Straczynski. It's fairly interesting and gives a good overview of the story arc and where we're now at in the show. Just one note of warning: it has plenty of spoilers in, so watch it after you've seen the rest of the DVDs – that is, if you're new to this series.
There's a lot of action going on in season 4 of Babylon 5 and this DVD release will certainly help flesh out people's collections of the show. The writing and plots remain strong even at points where acting and special effects have flaws – and in the end this is the enduring quality of Babylon 5. Of the five seasons of the show, this is my second favourite (with season 3 winning the all-out title for me, as the pacing is better and the story less cluttered with certain delusions of godhood). The DVD offers a decent transfer of both sound and picture, if you allow for the controversy over the widescreen rendering of CGI that has been debated since season 1 was released. Extras are really that here – extras – not as impressive as those on some more recent television releases but at least they do add some interesting information and insights.